I had to get my roof repaired last month. Not a big deal, but it got me thinking about the whole process of finding contractors and services in the modern era.
Now, back in the bad old days, I would have probably started by looking in the Yellow Pages, which, at the time, was an actual paper book printed with business listings. Flipping to the “Roof Repair” section, I’d immediately eliminate anyone from contention if they had a company name like “AAAAA Roofing” — if they had to try that hard to get to the front of the category listing, how good could they possibly be? (Fortunately for SEO types in the modern era, search engine optimization techniques aren’t nearly as blatant.)
Next, after realizing that there were way too many companies listed, each indistinguishable from the other except for the prettiness of their 4-color ad, I’d ask a friend or neighbor for a recommendation. (Which might have been my first step, depending on how well I knew my neighbors.)
Word of mouth and human recommendations were paramount, but they were also a lot harder to dig up, and really dependent on geography and your personal social network.
If I couldn’t get any local recommendations, I was pretty much stuck with keeping an eye out for people in the neighborhood getting work done, and noting the sign on the lawn or the truck in the yard and asking for their opinion. Otherwise, back to the phone book.
(You could also do things like check with the local Better Business Bureau for complaints. But no one actually did that.)
Contrast that with my experience in 2009: My neighborhood listserve (well, it’s more of an e-mail list with a lot of people CC’ed — not exactly a model of Web 2.0 participatory community tools, but it works for smaller groups) recently had sent out a call for contractor recommendations, so I e-mailed the list maintainer to get the names of some roofers, got estimates from a few, and chose one.
(As to the rest of the process, the estimate was an e-mailed Word doc that I signed and e-mailed back, and the invoicing was online, too. So it was basically a paperless transaction. But that’s a side note.)
The neighborhood recommendation information could easily have been on a Web page or wiki, or something like Yelp or Angie’s List, but the point is that it’s not about the technology — it’s about collecting and making available the judgments and opinions of people who had to make the same decisions I was making. In high-falutin’ terms, it’s knowledge management and building a local knowledgebase.
In addition to storing and making accessible the data, the online social tools also expanded the neighborhood, by widening the base of people who could participate. This includes people geographically close to me, but whom I didn’t know (or didn’t know I knew).
(It’s kind of like that coastline measurement example people use when they talk about fractals — the closer you look, the more you come up with.)
The rest of it, all the small business blocking and tackling, remains the same: Good word of mouth and a sound reputation rules the roost, and is even more important when everyone can express their opinion, and (more importantly) everyone else can find it.
Anyway, the point of all this is that online social review and recommendation tools simply reinforce natural behaviors, and make them better.
Got an anecdote to share about a social recommendation that led you well or astray? Leave a comment.Google+